The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is the sixth event of the European Tour season but, in many ways, this is where it really starts.
For players of the official European Tour fantasy game, that's actually a statement of fact as, once more, this is the event which marks the opening event of the season-long challenge.
As one of the eight Rolex Series tournaments, it carries a hefty purse ($7m) and offers three-and-a-half times as many Race to Dubai points as last week's South African Open.
In other words, this very first week is a key one for gamers if they want to set the tone for a good year.
The event is part one of a three-week Desert Swing that also takes in the Dubai Desert Classic and the Saudi International.
Some stellar American names, including World No. 1 Brooks Koepka, line up this week, as does defending champion Shane Lowry, who used this as a springboard for his Open Championship success last year.
Shane Lowry took victory last year after shooting 62 on the opening morning.
Past Winners and Stats
2019 -18 Shane Lowry (DD: 30, DA: 55, GIR: 26, Scr: 38, PA: 2, AA: 21)
2018 -22 Tommy Fleetwood (DD: 19, DA: 6, GIR: 1, Scr: 4, PA: 13, AA: 1)
2017 -17 Tommy Fleetwood (DD: 15, DA: 9, GIR: 1, Scr: 27, PA: 45, AA: 4)
2016 -16 Rickie Fowler (DD: 27, DA: 4, GIR: 10, Scr: 10, PA: 16, AA: 1)
2015 -19 Gary Stal (DD: 54, DA: 12, GIR: 13, Scr: 28, PA: 3, AA: 6)
2014 -14 Pablo Larrazabal (DD: 21, DA: 59, GIR: 30, Scr: 4, PA: 8, AA: 7)
2013 -14 Jamie Donaldson (DD: 7, DA: 17, GIR: 6, Scr: 6, PA: 23, AA: 1)
2012 -13 Robert Rock (DD: 11, DA: 37, GIR: 8, Scr: 24, PA: 4, AA: 1)
2011 -24 Martin Kaymer (DD: 7, DA: 7, GIR: 1, Scr: 1, PA: 3, AA: 1)
2010 -21 Martin Kaymer (DD: 18, DA: 33, GIR: 18, Scr: 6, PA: 3, AA: 3)
Notes: This is regarded as a ball-striker’s track and Tommy Fleetwood ranked 1st for GIR in both his victories. Five of the last ten winners have also been in the top three for Putting Average and Shane Lowry added to that trend last year. Some accuracy off the tee has helped too although Lowry piped less than 40% of the fairways last season.
A par 72 playing 7,583-yards, the Peter Harradine design is often praised for its conditioning by the players. In four of the first six runnings the scoring went really low, but tweaks to the course and the wind (which is a genuine factor) started to alter that. However, the last three years have been won with -17, -22 and -18 so the players are winning the battle again. The fairways and rough are a mix of Paspalum and Bermuda with Tifdwarf Bermuda on the greens. Ten holes feature water hazards including the 562-yard par-5 18th. The other long holes come at 2 (599 yards), 8 (597 yards) and 10 (582 yards).
Conditions have been unusually wet in the build up with roads in Abu Dhabi being flooded due to heavy rain. However, the forecast for tournament week looks better with most days described as sunny and mild (temps in the high 60s/early 70s). Wind speeds are around 8-12mph. We'll have to see how much the course dries out but there's a fair chance it'll play softer than usual so there's a chance to make a good start, hitting into receptive greens Thursday morning.
Shane Lowry (2019): "On this golf course, look, obviously the scoring is quite good, and the par-5s are reachable and the greens are real good and receptive this morning. But yeah, to shoot 62 on any course, yeah, it's definitely up there with one of the best scores I've ever shot."
Tommy Fleetwood (2019): "This is a course where if you play well, you can do well and if you don't, you kind of struggle. Just so happens the last two years, I played really well, kind of like tee-to-greened it to death in a way."
Brooks Koepka (2019): "Kind of reminds me of like a major championship. Like I've said all week, it's very demanding. You need to be able to put the ball in the right positions if you want to score."
Matt Kuchar (2018): “It's a challenging driving golf course. There's so many different doglegs and carries and different bunkers … I’m learning exactly what lines to take and how much to try to bite off on some of the dogleg holes.”
Paul Casey (2018): “Boy, it seems long, like really long. I was thinking, how did I shoot that (-21 in 2009) when I won on some of these holes.”
Ross Fisher: “It's not as firm and as fiery as it normally is. Greens are definitely a little softer and slower. The rough is still thick but you get lies where you can get a club on it whereas in previous years it's literally just been wedge, hack it out.”
The Englishman missed four of his first five cuts here although did manage to squeeze in T19 during that run. However, Fleetwood insisted he really liked the course and those words came to pass when he won this event back-to-back in 2018 and 2019. Fleetwood ended 2019 with a bang, winning the Nedbank Golf Challenge in South Africa before returning here to the United Arab Emirates to finish runner-up in the DP World Tour Championship. Arguably the most consistent player in golf having not missed a cut anywhere in the world since July 2018.
We've not seen much of Cantlay on the European Tour (this is his first ever start in an ET event outside of a major/WGC) but there's good reason to expect a big week. He's now up to 6th in the OWGR after a run since August's BMW Championship which has shown two seconds and a fourth (in Hawaii two weeks ago) in five official events. He was ranked in the top four for both GIR and Putting Average in the Sentry TOC and a repeat of that will serve the American well here.
The World No. 1 has played here twice, missing the cut on debut in 2014 but posting T9 last year when firing an opening 67 backed up by three 70s. The fact that he likens it to a major test is obviously worth noting given his record in those although the big doubt is tournament sharpness. Koepka hasn't been seen since withdrawing from October's CJ CUP so some press conference clues should help gamers determine where he's at. Those uncertainties explain why he's only third in the betting.
With powerful converging trends, Oosthuizen is likely to be a popular pick this week. He's finished runner-up in his last two strokeplay events (Australian Open and last week's South African Open) and played well at the Presidents Cup inbetween. He played this event four times from 2008-2011 and posted a second and a fifth before returning to the event last year and firing 65-68-75-66 to crack the top five.
World No. 25 Fitzpatrick won the 2016 DP World Tour Championship to show he could thrive on a lengthy desert track and shook off some modest course form here (MC-26-MC) to take third in 2018, thanks mainly to a 63 on Moving Day. He didn't play last year but returns after ending 2019 by connecting a trio of top tens at the WGC-HSBC, Nedbank and DP World Tour Championship.
Fleetwood won this back-to-back in 2017-18 and now Lowry will hope to follow suit after opening with 62 and going wire-to-wire last season. He returns as a major champion after his stunning win at Royal Portrush last summer and, notably, he posted his best finish since then by finishing runner-up at last week's Hong Kong Open where he closed with a 64 and ranked fifth for GIR.
DeChambeau already has some history in the Middle East having won last year's Dubai Desert Classic and taken the first-round lead in Abu Dhabi as an amateur in 2016 (however, he finished T54 and missed the cut on his return here in 2018). He's now a five-time winner on the PGA TOUR although the constant meddling and science stuff doesn't always work and he's had mixed form over the last six months and this is his first start since 15th of 18 at Tiger's Hero World Challenge followed by a 0-1-1 record (he was the lowest U.S. scorer with just half a point) in December's Presidents Cup.
There's a slight jump in the betting from the top seven down to Grace at around 30/1 but the South African will still make it onto plenty of teams this week. He hinted at a return to form with third at the Alfred Dunhill Championship and followed that with a brilliant final-round 62 to win his home South African Open at the weekend - his first European Tour success for three years. He owns a 7-for-7 slate here since missing the cut on debut and that includes top fives in 2013 and 2016 along with three further top 20s. After bottoming out at 126th, Grace is back to 73rd in the OWGR and won't rest until he's back in the top 50.
The Belgian got back into the winner's circle with victory at the Czech Masters last summer (fourth win overall but first in three years on the European Tour) and Abu Dhabi has always looked a likely venue for another. He's posted a second, a fourth and a fifth in the last five years and added T16 last season. Pieters has had some big results in elite fields and showed that again with sixth place in the season-ending DP World Tour Championship (also here in the UAE) in November. He added T13 in Mauritius last month so not much rust has gathered.
The Austrian led the way for a long time on last season's Race to Dubai and was only pipped in the very last event by Jon Rahm. Still, three wins (May, July and October) meant 2019 was a career season for the 34-year-old and he'll be hoping to get 2020 off on a positive note too having gone 5-for-5 in Abu Dhabi since 2015, posting a fourth, a sixth and T15.